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FBI Reviews Flawed Bullet Analysis Convictions

Earlier this year, both fingerprint technology and the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) portion of the standard field sobriety test faced challenges. Although the battlegrounds were in different states and the U.S. Supreme Court precedents cited were different, both issues boiled down to the same thing: our criminal courts have been accepting “scientific evidence” for a lot of years without ever stopping to determine whether or not there’s really a scientific bases for the conclusions presented.

A third type of “scientific” evidence, though, isn’t in question at all. It appears to be unanimous that lead composition testing intended to identify the batch – and even box – from which a bullet came is, well, hogwash.

Unfortunately, the famed FBI crime lab at Quantico engaged in such testing and provided “scientific” testimony based on that testing for decades, beginning in the early 1960s. In some cases, the bullet identification was the only concrete evidence against a defendant who was convicted.

So, naturally, when the FBI realized that the whole thing had been a little error and that there wasn’t actually any scientific basis for the evidence it was presenting – and had presented in criminal cases for nearly forty years – it quietly discontinued the testing and moved on. This left a problem, though. Or maybe dozens of problems. Or hundreds.

Those problems were people, some of whom had been in prison for twenty years or more based on bullet matching testimony. A handful have been identified and granted new trials or even exonerated, but it’s believed that the FBI analyzed bullet composition in about 2500 cases over the years. In how many of those cases did the agency provide testimony? How often did that testimony result in conviction?

Only the FBI knows, and so far, they aren’t telling.

For more than three years, The Innocence Project has been working to re-open cases in which convictions were based on bullet composition analysis. Now, in the wake of coverage by Sixty Minutes and the Washington Post, the FBI has at last agreed to take concrete steps to attempt to identify possible wrongful convictions based on bullet analysis testimony. The Innocence Network and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) are forming a joint task force to ensure that the relevant convictions are properly reviewed.

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